Are the Sustainable Development Goals good news for women?

Caroline Sweetman Gender, Gender & Development Journal

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goal agreement was a historic moment for development and for feminism. Much hope rests on the goals, but what will they really achieve, for people living in poverty, and for women in particular? Valeria Esquivel  and Caroline Sweetman introduce some of the analysis in the latest issue of the Gender & Development journal.

Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have landed. Agreed at the United Nations in September 2015, they provide the world with a new development framework to direct policy makers for the next decade and a half. Are they good news for women? 

these articles are tentative evaluations of the SDGs, and point to the challenges of their implementation In the latest issue of Gender & Development, a range of prominent women’s rights activists and advocates – all directly involved in the creation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs -offer their ‘first-cut’ analysis. Authors are differently positioned in their shared struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. They are from women’s
organisations, research think-tanks, academia, and international agencies, including both the UN and international NGOs. Some have been involved as insiders in the SDGs process, some as lobbyists and campaigners seeking to influence the outcome. Because this is a ‘first-cut’ analysis, these articles are tentative evaluations of the SDGs, and point to the challenges of their implementation. 

There is a certain cynicism in many quarters about the use of such global frameworks – and the recent memory of the Millennium Development Goals, conceived behind closed doors by bureaucrats, fuels this cynicism. They were dubbed the ‘Minimum Development Goals’, and feminist critiques of them highlighted their poor fit with the realities of women and girls, particularly those living in poverty in the global South, and their lack of political
energy (for example, their failure to understand the importance of collective action in MDG Goal 3, on women’s empowerment). 

The bar is set low… But the stakes could hardly be higher The bar for the SDGs is therefore set low, if we look to the past. But the stakes could hardly be higher when we raise our gaze and look to the future. The SDGs will form a significant element in the constellation of international agreements shaping the world for the next decade and a half. And they therefore need to work for women. Feminists need to be able to use them to advance gender equality and women’s rights with governments, international financial institutions,
and NGOs.

Women’s rights were shifted exponentially by visionary and powerful global agreements at the end of the twentieth century – notably at Beijing in 1995, and Cairo the year before. 

Feminists have been fighting ever since to protect this progress. They have also been involved in consultations and debates shaping the SDGs, as Sascha Gabizon of the Women’s Major Group and Daniela Rosche of Oxfam discuss in their

In the main, writers here give a cautious thumbs-up to the SDGs. Shahra Razavi highlights that compared to the MDGs, they reflect a more complex, and hence sophisticated vision of what development means, and what is needed to get there. They focus on inequality – or more accurately, on inequalities. They are drafted in a way which makes it more difficult for policy makers to relegate gender equality and women’s rights to a silo:
the goals allow for overlapping analyses and for the identification of inter-linkages between different goals. This architecture – together with an explicit focus on responding to hard-to-reach complex inequalities in the commitment to ‘Leave No-one Behind’ – marks a commitment to go beyond the simpler, easier wins which characterized the MDGs, as Elizabeth Stuart and Jessica Woodroffe argue. This may enable real progress to chip away at the worst poverty and marginalization. We have a dedicated ‘gender goal’ – Goal 5 – but gender analysis underpins the 2030 vision and other ‘non-gender’ goals have targets which address key concerns for women and girls.

The SDGs require visionary policy makers to turn the vision into reality Yet as in much of life, ‘terms and conditions apply’. Does Agenda 2030 recast development itself so that it works for women, rather than women being used in their current unequal roles and relations to bolster up the existing, fundamentally unsustainable, development model? That will very much depend on whether there is a fundamental change in the development model – something that does not seem the case given the overwhelming emphasis on growth
‘as usual’, as Valeria Esquivel notes. 

Nicole Bidegain Ponte and Corina Rodríguez Enríquez, members of the DAWN network (Development Alternatives with Women for a New era) voice their concerns on the role of private interests in development; the issue of economic and financial volatility which reduces the extent to which states can control and protect the interests of those they should serve; and the question of how to
mobilise resources in-country for development, in light of national and international challenges to governance.

The SDGs require visionary policy makers to turn the vision into reality. Gabriele Koehler highlights the need to look to Beijing and Cairo among other earlier agreements to create a mosaic of policy possibilities to enact the SDGs. More profoundly, the writers for this issue query the co-existing and unchallenged features of global economics and governance which may scupper the SDGs. Formulating policies to respond to
the goals and targets and funding them will be the point at which the SDGs are ‘translated’ into concrete action in countries, and the transformative potential of Agenda 2030 realized (or not). 

As Sakiko Fukuda-Parr suggests, there is a danger that the SDGs and targets which contain most potential for transformation will be ‘neglected in implementation through selectivity,simplification, and national adaptation’. The women’s movements and wider social justice movements have much to do to ensure this does not occur.

Join the debate

#GenderSDG twitter debate
What can development frameworks do for women? Follow the hashtag #GenderSDG on Monday March 7 at 15.00 GMT, and have your say by including in your tweets #GenderSDGand @GaDjournal or @OxfamGBPolicy

#GenderDay public event
Caroline Sweetman and Valeria Esquivel will be speaking alongside Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, Elizabeth Stuart and Jessica Woodroffe at the Overseas Development Institute, London,8 March, 2.15-3.15 GMT

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Photo: Hygienists at Oxfam managed Kumala Community Care Centre in Sierra Leone. Pictured from left to right Lamrana B Sesay, Fatmata Jalloh, Bintu Kabba, Aminata Turay and Ramatu S Jalloh. The women are working to fight Ebola. Credit: Michelle Curran/Oxfam

Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.